After hearing clips of Joe Paterno's weak voice and seeing the still photos that appeared in The Washington Post on Sunday, it's sad to see how far the legendary coach has slipped in just the last three months.

Showing the effects of the chemotherapy and radiation for his lung cancer, which was diagnosed shortly after his dismissal due to the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal, a feeble-voiced Paterno admitted not knowing "which way to go" after an assistant coach Mike McQueary came to him in 2002 with the news that he had seen defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky sexually abusing a boy.

With those doubts in his mind, Paterno says he waited a day after he hearing McQueary's allegation before reporting it to his superiors.

That dialogue and timeline are certainly key elements in the pending court proceedings surrounding the scandal.

At news conferences prior to last November's crippling PSU revelations, we had seen Paterno beginning to show his age, that distinctive and once-commanding Brooklyn voice slipping a bit as he sparred with sports writers about his Lions. But that steady decline over the past few seasons can't compare with health-draining physical toll of the last three months, including the cancer, a broken hip and the emotions of the Sandusky nightmare.

I was in Tampa's Raymond James Stadium on New Year's a little over a year ago to watch Penn State and Florida tangle in the Outback Bowl. The focus that day was as much about the coaches – the immortal JoPa versus the great Urban Meyer, who was coaching his final game for the Gators.

As in any other major bowl in the Paterno era, Penn State fans were giddy that day, the university once again basking in the limelight of a multi-million payday for a nationally televised game. In the business of big time college football, there's no better recruiting tool than for a school to appear in a New Year's bowl game, something that Paterno made a habit of doing during his 46 years as head coach.

Though JoPa's coaching years seemed to be numbered a year ago, there was no indication that his formula for sustaining his football empire would ever end. Despite the loss to Florida in that game, Penn State recruiting base seemed as solid as ever – the Paterno system as unchanging as the white helmets with the blue stripe.

Then came the sexual abuse bombshell against former assistant Jerry Sandusky last November, which toppled not only a football program, but the very power base in Nittany Nation.

The allegations that have rocked the university only prove that in this media frenzied age, it's very difficult for a major football program to remain insulated from the outside world. No longer can a major program – not even one as storied as the one built by a walking legend like Joe Paterno, whose own bronzed likeness stands outside Beaver Stadium – can hide from the relentless scrutiny of today's 24-hour media market.

By Jim Zbick

jzbick@tnonline.com [1]